TWO hen harriers have gone missing near grouse driven moors in the Cairngorms in what the RSPB claim are “suspicious circumstances”.

Satellite tags on fledglings Marlin and Hoolie stopped transmitting within days of each other.

Both devices – fitted as part of the EU Hen Harrier LIFE project – had worked well and reliably until the birds arrived in Scotland.

The RSPB have called for estates to be licensed in a bid to tackle wildlife crime.

Details of the missing raptors were revealed last night on BBC Scotland’s Landward programme.

Hoolie, a male, came from a nest in Easter Ross in 2018. He crossed the sea to Ireland, returning there for the last two winters, where his movements have been closely followed by Irish ornithologists.  In March 2020 he came back to Scotland, most likely with a view to finding a mate and raising chicks of his own. However, his tag suddenly stopped transmitting. His last transmitted location was on April 5 and showed he was over an area of moorland near Newtonmore intensively managed for grouse shooting.

He disappeared close to where another tagged hen harrier, Lad, was found dead with injuries consistent with being shot in 2015.

Marlin, a young male, fledged from a nest at the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire in 2018, flew south and spent the last two winters in North Yorkshire.   

On 8 April – just three days after Hoolie’s tag stopped working – Marlin’s tag also ended transmission. He too had returned to Scotland, and his last transmitted position was over a driven grouse moor near Strathdon, West Aberdeenshire, in the Cairngorms National Park. 

Last April, another Mar Lodge hen harrier, Marci, also disappeared suspiciously, less than a kilometre away, on the same grouse moor. 

When a tagged hen harrier dies of natural causes the tag continues to transmit its location allowing for the body to be recovered. Police Scotland carried out searches for the birds but neither the tags or the bodies were found, and neither tag has transmitted further data. 

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said: “Scotland had only just been put into lockdown in early April and yet protected birds of prey equipped with highly reliable technology have disappeared on land managed for driven grouse moors.

The fact that these two birds have disappeared very close to where other similar incidents have occurred only heightens suspicions that these birds can be added to the very long list of protected birds of prey killed on grouse moors.

“The Scottish Government’s independent review of grouse moor management, published at the end of last year accepted the need for regulation of grouse shooting but proposed a five year probationary period to allow populations of hen harriers and other birds of prey on or near grouse shooting estates to recover to a ‘favourable’ conservation status. We believe that this approach is unworkable in practice and urge the introduction of a licensing scheme as soon as possible.” 

Tim Baynes, moorland director for Scottish Land & Estates, said: “The estates where the birds were last located emphatically deny any involvement in their disappearance. The estates, one of which is an active participant in the Heads Up for Harriers scheme to protect the species, had assisted police in searches for the birds but police found nothing on either estate to warrant further investigation.

“We have contacted Police Scotland to ask for further information and asked that the matter is raised through the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland. Our members are outrightly opposed to any form of wildlife crime and there is an urgent need for greater transparency and collaboration over satellite tag data which could help in finding out what happens to birds that disappear.”